There's a Secret Message in Kendrick's Original Title for His New Album
On Tuesday, Kendrick Lamar offered listeners a glimpse of his new album's origin. In a conversation with MTV 's Rob Markman, Lamar revealed that the "butterfly" in To Pimp A Butterfly was originally going to be a caterpillar. That change would have given the album's title a very significant acronym — one Lamar says the blog Dead End Hip Hop, teased out in a review last week. "They caught it because the abbreviation was Tupac, Tu-P-A-C," Lamar told MTV.
Lamar's whole album was nearly a top-to-bottom homage to the rap legend. Even without this detail, Tupac's influence runs throughout Lamar's classic record.
The profound meaning of the title. "Me changing it to Butterfly, I just really wanted to show the brightness of life," Lamar explained to MTV. "And the word 'pimp' has so much aggression and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity."
Lamar weaves this struggle to make sense of his celebrity status throughout the album. It's present in the central poem, which expands after nearly every song: "I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment."
When Lamar finally completes the poem on the album's very last track, "Mortal Man," the listener realizes that Lamar has been reciting it to Tupac this entire time — or rather, a digital reconstruction of Tupac. "I was gonna call it 'Another Nigga' but, it ain't really a poem, I just felt like it's something you probably could relate to," Lamar tells Tupac. And they launch into a conversation, with Tupac's half built from clips from a 1994 interview. They talk about race relations, the power of music and an artist's responsibility to the dead. It underscores how dedicated Lamar is to deepening Tupac's legacy.
Lamar is Tupac's legacy. Lamar describes himself to Tupac as an "offspring of the legacy you left behind." It's not an empty boast about Lamar's lyrical abilities or his already legendary status. It's a statement about his dedication to Tupac's philosophies and views about the power of rap.
"If we really are saying rap is an art form, then we got to be true to it and be more responsible for our lyrics," Tupac told Vibe in a 1995 interview. "If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them."
Lamar copes with this same kind of survivor's guilt throughout the album. By the end, he concludes the best way he can give back to his community is to continue to use his lyrics to help reveal and dismantle institutionalized racism. "In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, a lot of people don't understand how important it is," Lamar tells Tupac. Tupac's dedication to using hip-hop as a tool to uplift communities lives through Lamar.
The caterpillar and the butterfly. Even though Lamar changed the title to Butterfly before the album dropped, the caterpillar still makes an appearance in the album's final poem: "The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it," Lamar recites. "Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city."
The butterfly, on the other hand, "represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar / But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits."
Choosing to highlight this "butterfly" over the struggles of the "caterpillar" is one of the things that makes Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly the unique triumph that it is. The more we focus on the talent, the thoughtfulness and beauty in our music, the more we can bring out the talent, thoughtfulness and beauty in our listeners.